The breaking point came Jan. 16, two days after UB coach Nate Oats delivered a blistering assessment of his team following an embarrassing loss at home to Ball State. Oats wasn’t alone in his frustration. Blake Hamilton was beyond exasperated before taking matters into his own hands.
Hamilton was seeing his senior year fade away when he rapped on his coach’s door at the Cuyahoga Falls Sheraton in Ohio, where the Bulls were staying before playing Kent State the next night. Hamilton sat down Oats and asked for the keys to the offense with the idea he could steer UB away from an awaiting cliff.
“It got to a point where I got fed up,” Hamilton said. “There’s a lot of trust we have in each other. I was tired of losing. Basically, I wanted to control the team. I wanted to take the team wherever we go. I want to do my best every game to make sure we’re doing what we have to do. It wasn’t a brutal conversation. It was simple.”
Looking back, it really was simple. UB was desperate for a leader, someone who would assume command over a team in transition. Hamilton arrived last season and emerged as one of their better players, but the Bulls weren’t his team. Lamonte Bearden was running the show while running the point.
Oats had experimented with Hamilton at point guard with mixed results, but he also needed to face the facts: He didn’t have a better option than the long 6-foot-6 swingman from Pasadena, Calif. The cold truth was he didn’t trust anyone more than Hamilton. Before taking the wheel, however, Hamilton needed to follow a few rules.
Hamilton needed to make intelligent decisions, use his big body to get to the basket, shoot from the perimeter and make people around him better. He checked the first three boxes. It was the fourth that gave Oats pause. Hamilton needed to prove he could move the ball and get everybody involved.
“All right,” Oats told him. “Let’s go.”
UB is going, all right.
The Bulls won their sixth straight game Saturday, a convincing 71-58 victory over a Miami before 4,002 fans in Alumni Arena. Hamilton has led them through their best stretch of the season, and he was terrific again against a RedHawks team that has been going into the opposite direction.
Hamilton scored a game-high 23 points and carried them through a sluggish and sloppy first half. He scored 11 points in the first 11 minutes and had 14 points at halftime. He converted eight of 13 shots from the floor, including five of seven from three-point range, had four assists and one turnover in the game.
“I’ve had some bad shooting games, and I’ve had some great shooting games. I have to do a great job of getting everybody else involved and making everybody else happy. Defensively, we have to have that intensity. When we’re playing our best defensively, I don’t see anybody beating us. Our offense is flowing. It’s hard to beat us.”
Hamilton causes major matchup problems in the conference given his versatility. His size allows him to play anywhere and guard virtually anyone. He’s a good perimeter shooter who can get to the basket. He was seventh in conference scoring, 11th in rebounds and fifth in assists before the game Saturday.
It was a good talk, indeed.
The Bulls were in disarray before Oats lit up his team publicly for their lackluster play and indifference toward defense. They acted like they were entitled to make the NCAA Tournament after going the two previous seasons. It was as if they forgot about the hard work and selfless approach that led them there.
UB has been humming since the change was made. Hamilton has averaged 20.5 points per game during the winning streak. The Bulls have won eight of their last 10 games. Both losses were by a point. They’re the hottest team in the MAC and haven’t played this well since the conference tournament last season.
He provided precisely the leadership UB needed.
“He had some big-assist games before that conversation,” Oats said. “Sometimes, he would come off, and he was either shooting it or getting the assist, but (the ball) wasn’t necessarily moving. I told him it has to start moving. When these guys don’t get the ball, their defense suffers. He agreed.”
All would agree that UB’s success largely depends on how well Hamilton does over their final four games and into the conference tournament next month in Cleveland. If the Bulls are going to three-peat in the MAC tourney and reach the NCAAs again, Hamilton will be the man leading them.
In a loss to Akron last month, he was 13 of 16 from the field and scored 33 points. In the blowout win over Northern Illinois two weeks ago, he was 1 of 7 and finished with five points. He was a dangerous player on a dangerous team Saturday, one that has been steered in the right direction.
Once broken, the Bulls appear to be fixed.
“I know the team is going to go as far as I go,” Hamilton said. “Even when I have bad shooting games or something, I know I have to contribute to other things. I have to get rebounds, get steals, get assists and get people involved. That’s basically what I’ve been doing. It hasn’t been all glitter and gold.”